The ‘Ukrainian neo-Nazis’ canard – Monash Lens

The Azov Regiment (sometimes erroneously still termed the Azov Battalion, though the latter folded in 2014) and the threat of “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” has attracted considerable Western press coverage since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

From 2014 to 2022, the Azov Regiment was based in the city of Mariupol in southeast Ukraine, and this year the Azov fighters gained global visibility as defenders of the city, which Russia conquered in May after a bloody two-month siege, destroying most of the city in the process.

The Azov Regiment is frequently invoked to conjure what Russian-Israeli historian Vyacheslav Likhachev calls the “myth [of] Ukrainian fascism”, and many Western press sources in 2022 continue to treat the association between “Azov Regiment/Battalion” and “Neo-Nazi” as axiomatic, with some even attempting to draw unsubstantiated links between Azov and white supremacist terrorists in the West.

The “What about Azov Nazis?” canard has become a ubiquitous tu quoque that Russia deploys to problematise Western support for Ukraine, and distract from its own record of atrocities. Literally meaning “you also” in Latin, this logical fallacy is more informally known as “whataboutism”, and has been deployed in Russian propaganda for decades. In cruder terms, one might recall the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

A ‘fairly typical’ fighting unit

Our media’s “obsession” with the Azov Regiment (the volunteer militia the Azov Battalion no longer exists) – a single unit of the Ukrainian National Guard – is based largely on superficial or out-of-date research.

Multiple expert assessments made in 2022 conclude the modern Azov Regiment is a fairly typical fighting unit, with little, if any, political bent.

There isn’t space to canvas all these in a short piece, but this is the conclusion of Anton Shekhovtsov, Ivan Gomza, Anders Umland, and Vyacheslav Likhachev. For a concise summary, Likhachev’s point-by-point rebuttal of the Azov-Nazi narrative comes highly recommended.

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The Azov Regiment of 2022 bears little relation to the ragtag militia the Azov Battalion of 2014, formed from a few dozen football hooligans, and – yes – far-right extremists.

Crucially, in late 2014, Azov was absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard, allowing greater state oversight, with considerable attention paid to cleansing the ranks of far-right elements, in what should be recognised as an example of successful deradicalisation.

The Azov Regiment has been repeatedly reconstituted; its extremist early leaders such as the odious Andriy Biletsky are long gone, and, more recently, its fearsome, pseudo-pagan regimental emblem has been abandoned.

Both Shekhovtsov and Gomza describe Azov as “depoliticised”, with Umland writing “its recruits now join not because of ideology, but because it has the reputation of being a particularly tough fighting unit”.

Nonetheless, Russian state media makes endless reference to the diabolical “Azovtsy” to justify its brutal invasion of Ukraine.

An analysis of more than eight million Russian media pieces charts how the bogeyman of “Nazism” in Ukraine has saturated their media post-invasion, with the supposed threat of Azov “neo-Nazis” weaponised to justify Russia’s brutal destruction of Mariupol.

While we cannot expect integrity from Russian state channels, it’s lamentable that this trope also persists in our media.

Russia weaponised the supposed threat of Azov “neo-Nazis” to justify its brutal destruction of Mariupol, including the Azovstal steel factory.

A failure to engage with Ukrainian sources

The Azov-Nazi obsession demonstrates a remarkable failure to engage with Ukrainian sources, including the experiences of its Jewish community, which has long been scathing of the Russian claim that neo-Nazim is widespread in Ukraine.

Likhachev notes from that from 2014-2022 there were exactly zero reports of anti-Semitic incidents committed by Azov in Mariupol, despite the city’s sizeable Jewish community.

Anti-Semitism has little resonance even among more extreme Ukrainian nationalist elements, while polling demonstrates that Ukraine is among the least anti-Semitic and xenophobic countries in central-east Europe.

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Ironically, neo-Nazi military units with thousands of soldiers under arms operate openly among the invading Russian forces.

Dmitry Utkin, the founder and commander of Wagner Group, the largest and most infamous Russian mercenary unit, is covered in Nazi tattoos that didn’t preclude him from being awarded Hero of the Russian Federation in 2016, including a photo op alongside Putin himself.

The commander of the affiliated “Rusich” brigade, the notorious sadist Aleksei Milchakov, answered, “I’ll tell you straight up, I’m a Nazi”, when asked in a recent interview about his political convictions.

Further, as Robert Horvath has recorded in his recent monograph, Putin’s Fascists, the Kremlin has actively built ties with neo-Nazi groups inside Russia to police internal dissent.

Anton Shekhovtsov’s Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir documents Russia’s role as the key sponsor of the Western far right for decades.

The now-abandoned Azov pseudo-pagan regimental emblem.The now-abandoned Azov pseudo-pagan regimental emblem.

The role of far-right symbolism

Frankly, photographs of both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers sporting tattoos or patches with far-right imagery aren’t difficult to find. As uncomfortable as this can sit with us, Gomza writes that the gravity of many of these symbols simply isn’t widely known in Ukraine, and can be “likely just an emblem of a successful fighting unit that protects Ukraine”, rather than a politically charged symbol.

Marlene Laruelle, author of Is Russia Fascist?, notes that symbols like pseudo-pagan imagery and Nordic runes common among Azov fighters are widespread in military units worldwide.

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Further, an uncomfortable reality, as attested in a recent report on the German military, is that far-right sympathies are not uncommon in national militaries globally.

While most Russian propaganda makes huge numbers of unspecific and often-implausible claims (sometimes called the “firehose method”), the framing of the Azov Regiment as diabolical neo-Nazis has been focused, consistent and relentless.

Although Ukrainian sources have been withering about the Azov-Nazi connection for years, a “Western gaze” and a lack of area knowledge has enabled this myth to persist in both journalistic and academic spheres.

Azov soldiers lined up, with the focus on the trident emblem on the shoulder of one uniform

A sense of ‘moral procrastination’

For us in the West, there’s a certain psychological comfort in seeing a false moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine.

Shekhovtsov observes that the “Azov Nazi” narrative allows a sense of “moral procrastination” regarding Russia’s invasion. If the war pits two equally problematic sides against each other, inaction becomes morally justified.

Such “moral procrastination” makes it easier to defer the difficult collective decisions necessary to break the back of the Russian war machine – especially breaking free from dependency on Russian oil and gas imports.

Only one side is massacring civilians, deporting hundreds of thousands of children from their homeland, and conquering and aggressively assimilating another state’s sovereign territory.

One doesn’t need to look far to know who the true “fascists” are in this war.

Note: On 1 August, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the Azov Regiment is a terrorist organisation under Russian law, a likely prelude to planned show trials of Azov fighters in Mariupol.